Obituary of Dr. Gilbert F. White

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006; Page B04

Dr. Gilbert F. WhiteGilbert F. White, 94, a geographer whose lifework on human interaction with the environment proved influential in the world ecological movement, died of dehydration Oct. 5 at his home in Boulder, Colo. “Floods are ‘acts of God,’ but flood losses are largely acts of man,” he said in his 1942 doctoral dissertation. Natural hazards are best avoided rather than “managed” by building dams, levees and walls, which often do more harm than good, he showed. His research laid the foundation for the federal flood insurance program.

His initial interest in flood plains soon broadened to how humans live with the natural world. Dr. White, who won the National Medal of Science in 2000, helped forge international cooperation on water systems in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa, fought the spread of deserts and warned in the 1970s about the impact of human behavior on the global climate.

He led an international scientific body that concluded that an all-out nuclear war would cut off sunlight sufficiently to produce a “nuclear winter.” The 1985 report, which he drafted, said the danger was real.

Despite dealing with what could be a grim topic, Dr. White was a self-effacing optimist who believed that people working together could solve most problems, his son said.

“He had an underlying belief in his fellow man” that stemmed from his deeply held Quaker faith, said William D. White, a Cornell University professor. “He learned Russian so he could talk to Russian scientists during the Cold War. He worked with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian scientists for improved water use in the Middle East. During the Vietnam War, he said if we could just stop fighting, we could improve the [development and conservation of the] Mekong River for the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.” Dr. White, a native of Chicago, received a bachelor’s degree in 1932 and a master’s degree in 1934 in geography from the University of Chicago. He interrupted his doctoral studies at Chicago to be part of the New Deal in Washington.

While studying recurrent Mississippi River floods, he challenged the then-pervasive notion that natural hazards were best controlled by engineers and construction. His point of view was radical at the time, but land-use planners, scientists and government officials around the world today look at the landscape the way Dr. White did: balancing a range of alternatives that includes upstream watershed treatment, flood-proofing of buildings, emergency evacuation procedures and dams. He is known as the “father of flood-plain management.”

Dr. White, who as a college student was attracted to his grandparents’ Quaker beliefs, listened to his father’s recommendation that he try ROTC for two years to understand another point of view. Dr. White did so, but when World War II started, he registered as a conscientious objector. He became a relief worker with the American Friends Service Committee in France and was taken prisoner in 1943. He was interned in Germany for a year until a prisoner exchange freed him to return to the United States, where he worked for the Quakers until the end of the war.

In 1946, Dr. White became the youngest college president in the nation when he joined Haverford College in Pennsylvania at age 34. Nine years later, he returned to the University of Chicago. He moved to the University of Colorado in 1970, where he was director of the Institute of Behavioral Science and founded the Natural Hazards Research Center.

The increasing loads of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to worry him in the 1970s. Late in that decade, he issued a declaration with Mostafa Tolba, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, suggesting that human activity might cause a change in global climate. Dr. White was then the president of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, which published the first serious book on the subject and sponsored a 1985 conference mobilizing concern about greenhouse gases.

One of the keys to averting disaster, he believed, was improving high school geography education. He wrote an article for a Chicago newspaper in the 1960s, noting that most high school students didn’t know which countries bordered Vietnam; his sister interviewed his own children and discovered “that among those ignorant children were his own,” his son William said.

Dr. White chaired the American Friends Service Committee from 1963 to 1969. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, the 1987 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the Association of American Geographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, among many others. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Cosmos Club.

His first wife, Anne Elizabeth Underwood White, died in 1989.

In addition to his son William of Ithaca, N.Y., survivors include his wife of three years, Claire Sheridan of Boulder; two other children, Mary White of Boulder and Frances Chapin of Edmonds, Wash.; two stepchildren, Monika Profitt of Seattle and Daniel Profitt of Boulder; and four grandchildren.

“While watching the German occupation of France, I became convinced that man can no more conquer or preserve a civilization by war than he can conquer nature solely by engineering force,” Dr. White told broadcaster Edward R. Murrow for the radio program “This I Believe” in 1951.

“I found that an occupying army or a concentration camp can repress men’s basic beliefs but cannot change them. The good life, like the balance of all the complex elements of a river valley, is founded upon friendly adjustment. It embraces confidence in fellowship, tolerance in outlook, humility in service and a constant search for the truth.”